On Teachers United, WEA Rep Assembly, and Engaging New Educators

I arrived back in Seattle yesterday morning from my first experience at the WEA's Representative Assembly in Spokane, and I learned a lot.

I've been a part of a number of different teachers unions in my day (TEA, WTU, UFT, WEA), and I came back from the WEA RA feeling that the WEA is overwhelmingly the strongest among them.

Had you asked me about teachers unions ten years ago, I probably would have told you that I was skeptical of their work. I would have told you that teachers unions are mostly about protecting their members' compensation, jobs, and pensions.

You see, when I began teaching, I was eager to learn as much as I could about teaching. At the time, most of the media was in agreement about the necessary fixes to our system of public education: fire bad teachers; hire younger, more effective ones; get rid of tenure; consider complete school makeovers when tests failed to show academic improvement. It was all I ever read about in Newsweek or TIME, or heard about on the news.

So, in 2009 I left the state of Washington to work in the city of Washington, DC to find out if what Michelle Rhee was doing there was really working. By the time I returned to Washington State from the East Coast, my take on public education and teachers unions had shifted dramatically (see posts here and here).

If you ask me about teachers unions today, I would still tell you they serve to protect teachers' compensation, jobs, and pensions. But I would add that the good ones also serve to protect democracy, the 'public' in 'public education,' and the educational values that I hold dear. I do not believe that unions are comprised of saints, but I've come a long way in ten years.

I know I'm not the only idealistic, type-A college grad to have been disillusioned by what passes for education reform these days. I've met a number of others. A group of us even considered starting a blog at one time to share our stories. (Note: Diane Ravitch's thinking also did an about-face.)

It's because of the changes I've gone through in my career that I spoke in favor of a new business item presented before the WEA RA Saturday night by Daniel Calderon of Federal Way and Evin Shinn of the Highline School District.

Their proposed NBI recommended: "That WEA identify early career teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness and leadership in the classroom and/or school community and that WEA establish a year-long, online fellowship that offers professional development on union leadership for those teachers, including three two-day, in-person meetings during the year and using existing resources such as the professional development network."

At the beginning of the debate around this NBI, I had the sense that a majority of the body seemed to support it. The conversations I heard going on were mostly in favor, and many members spoke in favor. But then, after about six or seven speakers, it was brought to the body's attention that the makers of the motion may have been connected with a Gates funded group out of Seattle known as Teachers United.

I don't know if Daniel or Evin are members of TU, or even what it takes to be a member of TU (I've been to a few meetings myself), but knowing Evin's thoughts on education relatively well, and having eaten lunch with Daniel earlier in the day, I think it would be fair to say that the makers of this NBI did think like most of the members of TU. In other words, their views on testing and teaching are not in line with a majority of WEA members. However, to be sure, Daniel and Evin are members of the WEA. 

When the final vote came on the NBI, after many members of the body had had a chance to look up TU, it was overwhelmingly defeated.

And I had a hard time accepting that.

As strong as the WEA is, and as much as I believe it to be, by far, the best professional association I've been a part of, I don't believe we do ourselves any favors by failing to address something that is a real problem: a lack of newer educator involvement in WEA.

Of course, opponents of this NBI were deeply concerned that it would serve a more sinister purpose. Perhaps the language would somehow be construed in order to serve some corporate reform agenda.

I don't think so.

Take young teachers, listen to what they have to say, and engage them in honest conversations about what's right for students, and I think that's a discussion where the truth comes out on top every time. It certainly happened for me.

I found what happened Saturday night to be deeply concerning, not because the body choose to vote against it in the end, but because of how it happened and what happened afterward.

Many of us reacted quickly and out of fear, and to be fair, that's understandable. But following the vote, were quick to laud a "take down" of TU over Twitter and Facebook. Delegates discussed the nefariousness of Bill Gates and his money (despite the fact that most teachers have worked on some project or another tied to Gates money). 

If I had witnessed that happen ten years ago, I would have thought, "These people are just here to protect their own interests. Never mind that this body is far from representative of teachers in Washington State in terms of age and political leaning. I think I'll be going somewhere else to effect change in education." And I wouldn't blame Daniel or Evin for thinking the same.

I'm afraid we may have missed an opportunity for real dialogue. I understand why. We have real reasons to be afraid and angry about the direction education policy is headed. But I urge all of us not to let those emotions stop us from engaging in real conversations with those who disagree with us. Who knows, we might just learn something.

There are new educators entering our system all the time, and many of them have very different perspectives than we do. If we don't engage and listen to them, they may very well stop listening to us.


  1. James, your post is extremely thoughtful and I agree with you completely. The way that NBI failed was distasteful to be sure. I wish the motion had been proposed earlier because people were exhausted and weren't open minded about much. That said, my question kicked off the debate and when people realized that TU founder Chris Eide was there the outrage became palpable. I wish SO MUCH there had been transparency and forthrightness from Eide et al. but the way the motion was worded, the lack of discourse around how TU has or hasn't changed course on policies antithetical to WEA's and the intent of that motion made for a dark moment.
    Further, because of the way many reform groups infiltrate unions there is skepticism around TU in general. I do not believe in conspiracy theories but I understand that some people on the floor were very afraid this was a toe in the door strategy under a different guise. I still wonder if the motives were pure.

    If TU wants to engage unionists and provide resource$ in a time of austerity then let him come to us, the body, and explain his new position on DFER ideals. The makers of the NBI are to be commended for their effort and I wish the motion had passed with the amendments suggested by other union leaders earlier in the day. I am sending a letter to Chris today and am hoping he will meet with myself and an SEA leader soon.

    I deeply appreciate you posting about this, it has had my stomach in knots since Saturday night. We are a democratic organization and if anyone voted NBI 40 down because of implied association with TU then that is unfortunate. Many things were voted down at RA because of the uncertain intent of the makers. We need more time to caucus about these huge issues and we need to hear more rationale from the makers and we need to hear more explanation from staff about how NBIs will be implemented as well as breakdown of their costs. My McCleary letter to families was going to cost $325,000. Why? No idea. I withdrew it because I didn't want to waste time debating something doomed to fail with that price tag. But looking back, we should've had the debate. We also should've not been so fearful about an organization that is here to stay given their bottom line funding source. But fear is powerful and makes us react, not be proactive. Lesson learned.

    1. Hi Julianna, I guess we were typing at the same time. :) I am anxious to meet with you, and I regularly meet with SEA leaders and have also met with Kim Mead.

      We are not trying to hide anything, and had it been appropriate to discuss TU on a mic at RA, I would have certainly done that. TU had nothing to do with NBI 40, except that Danny and Evin are in TU. They are a part of a fellowship with the NEA that they have found valuable enough to suggest the WEA replicate.

      We are not trying to "infiltrate" as was suggested at the RA. We are all members of the WEA, so it is difficult to imagine what infiltration in that context could be. There are a lot of teachers who have other ideas about public schools and the teaching profession. As educators, we are trying to have a safe and reasonable dialogue about those issues. From the beginning, we have been sharing those perspectives with our union leaders (I have always sent union leadership copies of op-eds etc before they run). I have engaged literally dozens of union leaders from around the country on how we can help more teachers engage with our unions. This year, we tried to do it respectfully and you saw the result. As a teacher whose mission is to engage other teachers and share their ideas, I have been met largely with skepticism and confrontation. It isn't an easy road, but I firmly believe that it is the right one.

      So, yes. I will meet with you and anyone else and I will listen, and as always, hope to learn something new.

      Thanks, Julianna.

    2. Thank you Chris. I believe that you seek to improve schools. I look forward to talking with you about where we agree on how those changes can be brought forth. Where we disagree may be provocative and help inform the ongoing debate of reform vs. deform. It may also help teachers discover where they can most effectively leverage their voices to incite substantive & sustainable school improvement for kids.

  2. James, thanks for writing this. It can be difficult to find a voice within the union that veers from the orthodoxy of "if it's funded by Gates, it's evil." One thing that unites teachers in TU is the support of ideas that promise to help students. In particular, we support promising opportunities to do better by our low-income students. The thing that we oppose is divisiveness and ad hominem attacks. Right now, teachers are turning against one another, especially over associations, and it is terrible. It's even worse when we won't even engage in real, human conversations with one another. For so many teachers, it is easy to write off TU as simply a group that is being propped up by billionaires to support a corporate education reform agenda. That is ludicrous, false, and insulting to the hundreds of teachers in TU. That sentiment in its simplicity, mainly lives online. Opponents to TU rarely, if ever, agree to speak to me in person, or to believe that we are simply funded to engage teachers who are reluctant to engage in the conversation around education reform and who find it difficult to find a voice within the union.

    Let me be clear on two points:


    Our goal of 100% of students graduating high school prepared for college or their career cannot be achieved by policy change alone. It will come also through driving innovation and diffusing transformative teaching practices. We are going to begin that work more formally this summer. It also comes from having a strong, professional union that incorporates the ideas of all of its teachers around how to do well by our students and advocates for terms that the profession deserves. Despite what happened at the WEA RA, we will continue to push for that.

    I'd like to thank you, James, for being one of those willing to actually engage in dialogue around ideas and compromise. I've always admired you for that.

    Chris Eide
    Proud Co-Founder of Teachers United

    1. Chris,

      As you no doubt have heard by now, I too wish the item had passed, at least in some form. Engagement by teachers of any age is welcome within the WEA.

      A couple of points to your posting though:

      1- You were on the floor in Spokane and had ample opportunity to speak to the item, in defense of the young men who put it forward, and to the TU controversy when it erupted. You chose to do none of the above and left shortly after. Perhaps your involvement may have swayed the outcome, perhaps not. But your inaction certainly helped the item fail to pass. When you speak the words as you've typed above but fail to act on them in an arena such as we had at the rep assembly, then the words are hollow at best and ring of a falsity to those who hear and read them. You certainly can't claim a hostile crowd prevented you from speaking- that would seem to be a cheap and easy out and certainly unworthy of you.

      2- Allow me to quote you from above:


      Your point speaks volumes to your intention. If younger teachers are opposed to the union, then it would make sense that the item was geared toward getting them involved so that they could be identified and targeted. Perhaps you'll assert that you misspoke or were in some other way unclear? I would buy that in a face-to-face conversation but here you had more than enough time to consider the words you chose and their implications. You are much too smart of a political player to have made that mistake innocently. If anything, you have just given ample evidence that supports the fear of the union members that voted on the item- you had other intentions with the NBI.

      And as to your point that the Gates funding is in no way tied to a specified outcome, this is technically true. I would imagine the wording of any contracts between the Foundation and TU stipulate that your directions is of your own choosing and the money in no way should dictate your positions. However, we are all aware of the idea that in order to gain continued funding from your sources then your positions had better darn well fall in line with their views on education reform. This would be why you stack the deck in the way that you do and be assured of a particular outcome.

      Most of us don't doubt your desire to help children. We all have that goal and the way we choose to go about it is very different. If you'd would prefer to help students more directly, I would suggest there are many ways to do so without negatively impacting the current system of education.

      As I said to you at the TownHall meeting, I am happy to sit and speak with you when our schedules allow, as open and honest dialogue is always beneficial to all sides of the discussion.

      Michael Peña

    2. Hi Michael,

      I'm glad to hear that you have changed your mind on NBI 40. It is unfortunate that you all decided to try to sabotage it for the sake of belittling our work and organization. I think that there is widespread agreement that the NBI had merit, and the idea is necessary to implement, regardless of how the WEA wants to do it.

      I didn't speak to the NBI because there was no need (read: 15 people wishing to speak in favor and none against before you guys did what you did). In addition, there was no need to speak about TU because it was not relevant to the issue at hand. I offered to explain anything about TU to Jason (the one who rhetorically asked Daniel what TU is) afterward, but he declined.

      The Badass Teachers Association has not allowed me to be a part of the dialogue, has engaged in tactics such as the ones at the RA and on social media after NBI 40 happened, and has effectively alienated a good number of teachers (see Evin's post above, for one). Honest conversation doesn't seem to be a viable option at this point, which is unfortunate.


  3. Chris, please check your fb message. I am sending the note I spoke of in my initial comment.

  4. Hey James,

    Just wanted to say how much I really appreciated your care and concern publicly after it took an unexpected turn for the worst. I still have pretty hurt feelings and I think I'll stay in my classroom and change the world from the inside out. I'm not cut out for the education policy world, especially after proposing NBI 40. I'm too sensitive for that stuff.



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